Rob McCoury grew up with a great banjo player in the same house. That would be his dad, traditional bluegrass singer and multi-instrumentalist Del McCoury.
“It was a blessing,” second-generation bluegrass artist McCoury said. “But dad wouldn’t just show me everything. He’d let me work on it on my own and then straighten me out if I was missing something.”
Some folks, McCoury added, may not even know that Del McCoury’s primary instrument had originally been five-string banjo.
The elder McCoury’s chance to work with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe prompted his change of instruments. Monroe hired another musician for the banjo spot and then, even though McCoury had never sung lead before, assigned him to vocals and guitar.
“Dad’s pretty much been there ever since,” McCoury said from Nashville a few weeks ago.
McCoury and his mandolin-playing brother, Ronnie, perform with their dad in the Del McCoury Band. They also work without their dad as the Travelin’ McCourys.
“He’s not there but we have an array of award-winning guitar players who go out with us,” McCoury said.
Both the Travelin’ McCourys and the Del McCoury Band have engaged in genre-crossing collaborations with the jam bands Phish, the String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, sacred steel group the Lee Boys, Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Hayes, loop-employing singer-guitarist Keller Williams and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
“Dad’s up for anything,” McCoury said. “He’s the most open minded guy I know, when it comes to music. He’s like: ‘It’s all music. Some of it’s good, some of it ain’t.’
“We’re traditional hardcore bluegrass guys,” McCoury added. “That’s what we learned to do and what we love to do, but it is fun to do something different. Keller’s writing is left of center from anything I was used to doing.”
Williams and the jam bands placed the McCourys in front of audiences that are younger than typical bluegrass crowds.
“Traditional bluegrass audiences are not real young,” McCoury said. “That’s just the way it is. But we keep trying to take it to the people. We’ve been blessed in being able to play these jam festivals, hippie festivals, if you will.
“The people like our music and some of them, probably, don’t even know why. I’ve heard a million people say, ‘I don’t like bluegrass.’ But if they hear it in the right situation, like at a festival, they’re going to like it.”
The Travelin’ McCourys and Williams released their studio collaboration, Pick, in 2012. The Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band released their collaboration, American Legacies, in 2011. The latter two groups will perform together May 5 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“That was one of those cool things that fell out of the sky,” McCoury said of the Preservation Hall-McCourys album. “I love those guys. We were fans of theirs before we ever met them.”
The relationship between the two groups began when Del McCoury made a guest appearance for a Preservation Hall Jazz Band recording. The two groups later played some gigs together, which led to American Legacies.
“They never cease to amaze me with their knowledge of music,” McCoury said of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band members. “This guy over here, he’s playing saxophone. This guy back there is playing a tuba. This guy over there’s playing a piano and this other guy’s playing a clarinet; but each one of them can sit down with any one of those instruments and wear it out. It seems like they all play everything. And they’re just wonderful people, the kind of people you’d wanna to be around whether they played music or not.”